Technology and Empathy: The Quantified Empathic Self?

  • 29 November 2015
  • sjanicke

Empathy, is probably more needed now than ever. With the Syrian refuge crisis, ISIS and war zones across the globe it is easy to fall into the safety mode of protection. When we are scared we retrieve and our focus becomes our “survival” (which, in today’s western world really means: “I do not want to give up any of my perks and conveniences I am already so used to”). This certainly explains a lot of what I would argue “safety” reactions in the political discourse the media so nicely lays out for us. However, I do agree with Dr. Otto Scharmer on this, that to solve crises and, really, the worlds greatest problems, empathy and compassion are key instead a “them” vs. “us” mentality (His recent post in the Huffington Post on the Paris attacks nails it). 

According to Dr. Brene Brown :"empathy moves us to a place of courage and compassion. Through it, we come to realize that our perspective is not the perspective.” A recent study even found a specific area in the brain that is activated when we experience elevation, an emotion of feeling touched, moved and wanting to be a better person and help others. 

And while we are wired for empathy and compassion, we for 1. need to feel safe to be able to open ourselves towards others and see their perspectives and 2. need to withstrain from the cultural impacts and conditions that constantly take over our thinking left brain and tell us what should be the “right” decision in a given moment rather than what really is. 

So how can we “train” our empathy in the mediated world we live in? For one, identifying with media characters in common place movies and TV shows can help us to see an issue from another’s person's perspective. Now, the only problem is that we tend to seek out media content that confirms what we already believe in, so how can we step into another person’s shoes and create empathy for an “outgroup” member? That is a person, we would not likely to generallt identify with, for example, a minority, a person from another religious viewpoint, (mentality) disabled, or a refugee. 

Studies using Virtual Realities (VR) show one gateway to tackle this problem. For example, a research team from the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction lab found that when participants were temporarily perceiving the world from a color blind person’s perspective, compared to imagining being color blind, lead to greater feelings of concern for others and grater helping behavior towards color blind people (pdf). Another study found that participants who stepped in the shoes of themselves at old age were better at planning their financial future (allocating more money to long-term savings and greater financial literacy) than participants who were exposed to a current age avatar.

These are just two examples from a list of others, showing the potential virtual reality has to experience another persons perspective first hand. Jeremy Bailenson, the founder of the Stanford lab extended the VR research by having people pretend to be cows to change their eating behaviors,  or have people experience being homeless or being a minority for a little bit (on the media interview). With the google cardboard now being readily available to anyone with a smart phone, the opportunities to create perspective taking games or experiences can grow on scale. However, questions about an over-saturation/desensitization effect of empathy or the generalization of empathy to effect real change in society, remain. 

I wonder how else we can leverage technology to help people see, and more importantly, feel another persons perspective. Can a wearable device measure when we are rationalizing rather than feeling in a certain situation, providing us with options to re-assess the situation differently, and providing us with empathy based options to see the world through another person’s perspective? A lot of times a simple reminder that our point of view is as right and as wrong as another person’s point of view would certainly be helpful. Even a little trigger that tells me, 'oh- I am going into over analytical self-focused mode here, rather then an empathetic mode', I think could foster change in the long run. 

With wearable technologies developing in fast pace every day, I wonder if we can quantify not only our steps and water intake but also our empathy.